[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
ONE morning Mona hears of something that seems to strengthen her against her secret enemy. A prisoner in Compound Four, which lies nearest to the hill, has been cap- tured during the night in an attempt to escape by means of a tunnel from his dormi- tory to the open field under " Corrin's Folly." The case has been brought before the Commandant, and he has referred it to the civil court in Peel. With nothing to complain of now, what ingrates these Germans are !
Mona hurries to the court-house. It is full to overflowing with police, guards and townspeople. The Governor of the island has been sent for, and he is sitting on the bench with the High Bailiff. The prisoner is in the dock with a soldier on either side of him. His appearance is a shock to Mona. Instead of the hardened sinner she had ex- pected to look upon, she sees a thin, pale, timid - looking man with fever in his frightened eyes.
The facts are proved against him by the captain of the guard, and by one of his fellow-prisoners. For two months at least he had been tunnelling the ground from beneath his bed to the field outside the barbed-wire fences, working at night, while the other prisoners were asleep, and concealing the soil he dug out of the ground in the empty space under the stage of the camp theatre, which was also the camp chapel. At the last moment, just as he was about to emerge from the earth in the darkness of night, he had been caught by one of the guard, who had acted on the information of his nearest bed-fellow.
Already the story of this treachery has swallowed up Mona's feeling against the prisoner, but when, in reply to the
Governor, who addresses him sharply, he tells his own story, in halting words and with a tremor in his voice, she finds the tears dropping on the military medal she is wearing on her bosom.
He is a hairdresser, married to an English-woman and has two children, both little. After his marriage he had always meant to take out his nationalization papers, but when he had saved enough money to do so his wife was not well, for she was expecting her first baby, so he spent it in taking her to the seaside for a holiday. Afterwards they set up a shop in a suburb of London and that took everything.
" Come to the point. Don't waste the time of the court," says the Governor.
The prisoner struggles on with his story. At first when he was brought to the camp his wife wrote every week, telling him how she was and how the children were. His eldest little girl had been going to a private school, and when her schoolmates asked her where was her father she used to say " Daddy is at the war," for that was what his wife had told the child. But the truth got out at last, and then the parents of the other children demanded that his little girl should be dismissed, and she was, and now she was on the streets.
"Quick! What has all that got to do with your attempt to escape? " says the Governor, and Mona feels as if she wants to strike him.
" But that's not everything, your Excellency," says the prisoner.
" Go on," says the High Bailiff.
" After a time my wife stopped writing, and then I had a letter from a neighbour." "What did it say?" asks the High Bailiff, and with a fierce flash of his wild eyes the prisoner tells him.
Another German, who for some reason had been exempted from internment, had been put in by the authorities to help his wife to carry on the business, which was going to wreck and ruin. He was a scoundrel, and he had got hold of his ,wife, who had given in to him for the sake of the children.
" It drove me mad to think of it, sir. That's why I worked at night, making that tunnel under the ground, while the other men were sleeping. I wanted to get back and kill him."
" Good thing we caught you in time, then," says the Governor.
The sentence is bread and water and seven days' solitary confinement.
Mona, who wants to cry out in court, hurries home, and she is there when the guard brings the prisoner back. He looks like a picture of despair-bewildered, dis- traught and hopeless.
Mona finds it harder than ever after this to listen to her father's imprecations when somebody tells him of German victories.
" Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered. . . . Root them out, Oh Lord, that they be no more a people."
Sometimes she makes a sort of remonstrance, and then the old man looks up at her and says again
What's come over thee, woman? I don't know in the world what's coming over thee."
Every morning on getting up she looks away over the barbed-wire fence to the open fields beyond where the young men and the girls are working, as Robbie and she used to do in the early dawn at harvest. And every night on going to bed she stares down at the bare, black, cinder-covered encampment lit up from end to end by its fierce white arc-lights. More than ever now she feels like that hairdresser, and wants to escape from the camp. Yet the strange thing is that she knows quite well that even if she could do so she would not.
Oskar Heine has been made a camp captain for good behaviour, and is permitted to move about as he likes, yet they rarely meet and hardly ever speak. But one day he comes alone to the door of the dairy, and holding out something that is in the palm of his hand he says
" Do you know this? "
It is Robbie's silver lever ;watch. " Where did you get it? "
" An old schoolfellow, of mine sent it from home-from Mannheim."
" How did he come by it? "
He tells her. At the beginning of the last British advance his schoolfellow had been shot immediately in front of the first line of the British trenches. He had lain there for some time with the bullets whistling over his head, crying out for his mother (as men do on the battlefield if they think they are dying), when he heard an English soldier say
" Look here, lads, I can't listen to this chap any longer; I'm going to fetch him in." Then the soldier had climbed over the top and dragged him down to the British trench; but in doing so he had himself been potted. The British lads had put them both into a dug-out, lying side by side, and when their advance began they had gone on and left them. How long they lay together Oskar's schoolfellow did not know. When he came to himself he had found he was getting better, but his companion was fatally wounded. At length the brave fellow (he was a lieutenant) had tugged at his pocket, and dragged out his watch and said: " Look here, Fritz old chap, if you live to go home send this to my sister; she lives at Knockaloe."
Mona tosses in bed all that night, gazing into the darkness with terror, after she has drawn her curtains close to shut out the light of the arc-lamps. Remembering what her father had said when she read the soldier boy's letter, she had not shown the watch to her father, but hidden it away in a drawer.
It had come to her like a reproach from the dead, and she was afraid to look at it.
All at once she asks herself why? If those two brave boys lying out there in that deserted dug-out, the one thinking of his sister at Knockaloe and the other of his mother in her German home, could be friends at the last, was it the devil that had made them so?
" Oh God, my God, why do men make wars? "
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008